Could Iran be Obama's legacy?
Various battles rage in the region from Pakistan to the Maghreb and where once civilisations flourished in the Indus Valley, in Persia, Mesopotamia and Egypt we today see intolerance and violence that together seem to be putting the inheritor nations on the road to self destruction. Maybe this is an exaggeration but the daily killings and destruction as a form of political expression that encompass nationalism, sectarian beliefs, human aspirations and dictatorial regimes is becoming an epidemic without any obvious cure.
There are three main players in West Asia today — Israel, Iran and the US. Israel, surrounded by hostile regimes and their proteges, is increasingly concerned about Iran’s nuclear plans and determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability and ‘all options are on the table’. Iran itself feels surrounded by Israel, the strongest military force in the region and hostile Sunni regimes backed by a huge CentCom US force. The US itself is today unable to assert itself as it thought it could a decade or more ago.
As the super power with a declining credit rating, the US has to manage its conflicting interests in West Asia as well. It seeks a semblance of balance between Israel and the Palestinians; that Iran does not acquire the bomb without Israel having to resort to the military option; that the Arab Spring flourishes yet Shia protesters seeking political freedom in Bahrain do not provide a precedent for Saudi Arabian citizens; while Syria remains the shining example of protest even though al-Qaeda clones seem to be gaining and Egypt does not become an Islamic state without becoming another military dictatorship. The list is much longer.
Among all the issues the one that endures is about the Iranian bomb. Around this time last year, US intelligence estimates affirmed that Iran was not developing nuclear weapons. US military officials had cautioned against exercising the military option. The fear was also that many of the Iranian facilities were widely dispersed deep underground and beyond the reach of the Israeli military. The subject is again on many front pages and in strategic circles after the Munich Security Conference and the Kazakhstan P5+1 conference last month.
The thinking now is that the Iranian leadership may not even have decided to go nuclear. Ambiguity is useful and the Iranians watched Moammer Gaddafi become vulnerable after Libya gave up the nuclear option and the success of North Korean nuclear adventurism. Being a potential nuclear power has greater bargaining opportunities than acquiring a nuclear deterrent.
Steadily tightening sanctions are seen as the best alternative to war in making Iran give up the nuclear option. In reality, sanctions only hurt the people it is meant to help and strengthens the regime and there is the great danger that this hurt becomes the measurement of the success of the sanctions. The real test whether or not this is changing policy is forgotten. There is no evidence that Iran is changing its policy of insisting that it is merely exercising its right under the NPT and maintaining ambiguity about its intentions for the future. By its tactics, Tehran has bought time and obtained incremental concessions from the West.
Since war is an unrealistic option especially after Iraq and sanctions are at best an uncertain weapon, it is time to think of other options. In reality what the US has been seeking is a regime change in Iran for the last 30 years and more. These changes are no longer possible through the use of military force. There has been excessive mutual US-Iran demonisation with Iranian leaders speaking of annihilating Israel. This rhetoric needs to be eased. Instead Israel must be given security against Iran and its surrogates while Iran must be allowed to break through its isolation which, if continued, will surely make it more truculent.
US actions in the past decade have not endeared itself to the Muslim world. If America wishes to continue to exercise a measure of control and dominance without conceding space to a resource hungry China whose energy dependence on the region is bound to grow, it needs to come to terms with conflicting interests between Iran and Israel. If Richard Nixon sought a breakthrough in China after failure in Vietnam, George Bush had a breakthrough with India after failure in Iraq, Barack Obama could work on a legacy that is a breakthrough with Iran after failure in Afghanistan without having to give up close US bonds with Israel.
The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)